Pope Francis holds a weekly general audience, and he dedicated his most recent address from the Vatican to his Canadian trip during which he apologized, on behalf of the Church, for its role in the government-sanctioned residential school system. He restated that he felt the pain of survivors of Canada’s residential school system, and he asked for “forgiveness in the name of the Church” for the role many of its members played in abusing children and attempting to erase Indigenous cultures.
As we know, the Pope’s apostolic journey to Canada provided His Holiness with an opportunity to listen and dialogue with Canada’s Indigenous Peoples, following a visit from an Indigenous delegation to the Vatican earlier this year. During his five-day journey, he visited two provinces and one territory and delivered a message of penitence in 15 languages, including 12 Indigenous ones.
It was also an opportunity for Canada’s Catholic community to welcome its religious and spiritual leader for a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage. It was the first papal visit to Canada in 20 years.
I truly felt blessed to attend the mass Pope Francis celebrated in Edmonton as well as the one at the Basilica in Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré. Both occasions gave me an opportunity to reflect on the dark and shameful legacy of Canada’s residential school system and the intergenerational impact on Canada’s First Peoples.
A lot has been said and written about the Pope’s visit and his various speaking engagements while in Canada. His words have been analyzed, dissected and, to no surprise, have generated mixed reactions from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians as well as Catholics and non-religious individuals.
Personally, I feel the Pope’s apology was authentic, heartfelt, and sincere. I believe that he was genuinely remorseful and his efforts towards reconciliation and healing are real. It doesn’t erase the past, nor does it fix the present, but I hope it helps improve the future for First Nations, Métis, and Inuit. Of course, for obvious reasons, I am in no position to accept or refuse the Church’s apology. That’s not for me to decide.
However, during my visit to Edmonton and Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, I took the time to speak with and listen to many Indigenous leaders, chiefs, elders, individuals, and former residential school survivors. It was an overwhelming and truly sobering experience. Although not unanimous, a strong majority of Indigenous leaders I interacted with accepted the Pope’s apology and felt this was a giant step forward in their quest for reconciliation and healing. All agree that a lot remains to be done and the Pope recognizes that too.
Phil Fontaine, a survivor of sexual abuse at the schools and former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who also spoke to the tens of thousands who gathered at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, accepted the Pope’s apology who, he described as a humble person begging for forgiveness.
In his view, he believes we now have a path forward and feels the Pope is actually speaking for the Church, the institution itself, and Indigenous Peoples have a commitment for a collaborative undertaking with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. As he explained, if Indigenous Peoples want to heal and reconcile, they need to forgive. To be able to move on, as he said, “we want to find peace and solace in our lives.” Without forgiveness, the burden will carry on endlessly, and he doesn’t wish that upon anyone.
I share Mr. Fontaine’s views. Acknowledging and accepting the apology may be the first step needed to properly begin the healing process and, hopefully, rebuild trust and embark on a true journey of reconciliation – always walking together and listening to one another.
And, as His Holiness stated in Québec City, I think we have many reasons to be encouraged by his renewed commitment “to respond to the indignation and shame for the sufferings endured by the Indigenous peoples, and to move forward on a fraternal and patient journey with all Canadians, in accordance with truth and justice, working for healing and reconciliation, and constantly inspired by hope.”
For everyone’s sake and well-being, I hope we are heading in the right direction and forging a collaborative path forward.